"See, this is the thing I don't understand," Mozzie said, and Neal groaned and eased the bag of slowly melting frozen peas off his cheek. "How can you not know how to fight?"
"I'm a lover, not a fighter," Neal said sullenly.
"Yeah, and you also have like, two percent body fat. Have you seen yourself?"
"Look, I never had to fight until Peter sprung me," Neal said. "Now I've had my ass kicked by Vittorio, and last month Larssen -- "
"And Wilkes," Mozzie supplied.
"That's very helpful, thank you."
"Oh, and Alex!"
"And -- that was ten years ago!" Neal said.
"So? She still destroyed you."
"She had the element of surprise."
"What do you do with all of this?" Mozzie gestured at Neal's body. Neal gave him a lewd grin, which hurt the cheek that Lenny "The Butcher" Vittorio had planted a sucker-punch on earlier that day during a bust. "Oh, very clever."
"It works for me," Neal shrugged. "I used to do gymnastics. You should see me on the rings."
"You really should learn how to throw a punch. Or at least how to duck one," Mozzie said.
"Peter says the FBI's not going to pay for combat training. Besides, it's creepy, paying someone to beat you up," Neal said.
"So what're you gonna do?" Mozzie asked. Neal considered it, while condensation dripped down his face.
"What I always do," he answered finally. "Fake it."
"Pause it," Neal said.
"Neal, this is the best part!" Mozzie argued.
"I know! That's why you need to pause it! You're past it now, go back," Neal ordered. Mozzie glared, but June picked up the remote and backed up the DVD thirty seconds. Neal, standing next to the couch, adjusted his stance to match the one in the movie. "Okay, now, go."
"I never thought I'd say this, but I am so tired of Jackie Chan," Mozzie moaned.
"That's okay, dear," June said, taking some popcorn from the bowl between them. "Neal, we're watching Clint Eastwood next."
Neal, brow furrowed in concentration, followed the movements on the screen. "Fine by me," he said absently, lifting off with one foot and sweeping his other leg through the air. He fell on his ass, groaned, and got up, repositioning. "Rewind?"
"There must be an easier way to do this," Mozzie pointed out. "I'm sure the Y teaches Judo."
"Anything worth doing is worth faking," Neal responded. This time he didn't fall down, though he did look like he wasn't sure what particular good a kick like that would do.
"Aren't you tired of this?" Mozzie asked June in an undertone.
"No," June said, looking at Neal, whose shirt was sweaty and sticking to him. "I'm pretty sure I could watch this all day."
The trouble started when Mozzie finally got tired of Neal watching fight films every night, and burned him a DVD composed entirely of fight scenes. Neal, looking like he'd just been let loose in the Met, studied it for hours. And became very, very bruised.
He wasn't even paying much attention to the conversation going on around him -- the team was out for lunch, and Neal was just nursing his bruised elbows -- when he caught some mention Peter made of coming in on the weekend.
"You really need to learn when to leave the office," he said, on autopilot, because poking Peter was fun.
"Nah, it's good," Peter said. "We're getting up an intramural team to play into the NYLE game this year."
"New York Law Enforcement," Diana said, when Neal gave the table an uncomprehending look. "There's a charity basketball tournament every year. FBI hasn't put a team on the court in years. Larry Bird here wants to change that."
"You should show up, we could use some young guys," Peter said.
"Surprising to no one, basketball's not my game," Neal said. "Wait, so why are you going to the federal building? Because I gotta tell you, our conference room lacks a hoop."
"There's a gym on the fourteenth floor," Diana said. "Didn't you know?"
"It only has a half-court, but until we find somewhere else it'll do," Peter added.
Neal absorbed this information thoughtfully as they moved on to other topics of conversation.
The afternoon was slow, so when he was sure Peter was tied up in a meeting with Hughes, he wandered his way down to the fourteenth floor to check out the FBI gym. It was pretty empty, and he found what he was looking for quickly: some kind of workout room, with pads on the floor and a mirror along one wall. It also had a glass wall looking out into the hall and an upper walkway, because the FBI took "transparency" to architectural extremes, but if he came in early he was pretty sure nobody would be in the area.
Pleased, Neal made it back to the White Collar offices just in time for Peter to summon him into the meeting and make him explain to Hughes personally why he had maybe sort of forged a copy of a painting the week before.
The workout room was great. There were a lot of people at the gym at five in the morning, but they were all doing weight training or running treadmills on the other side of the floor, and Neal had the room all to himself. Three times a week he wore his suit in, changed into workout clothes, set up a laptop in one corner, popped in Mozzie's "Neal Learns To Fight Like An Idiot" DVD, and hit play. When he was done with practice, he showered and put his suit back on and was out just in time to be noticeably early for work. Peter seemed pleased, if a little confused, by his newfound work ethic.
It felt a little like forgery. Not a lot, but enough.
He'd been in the routine for three weeks, and was finally feeling like he'd mastered Jackie Chan's roundhouse, when he saw someone at the door. He stopped, hit pause on the DVD, and opened it.
"Hey, it's Angela, right?" he asked the woman standing in front of the glass wall.
"Mr. Caffrey," Angela said.
"Call me Neal," Neal said, smiling. "You need the room? I can clear out, I was almost done."
"Yes -- I mean no -- I," she paused. "No, thank you, I was just going to the treadmills."
Neal nodded. "Have fun. Stretch first."
She gave him a fleeting smile and walked away without saying goodbye. Well, sometimes FBI agents got nervous around a convicted felon, for some reason. You'd think they'd be used to it.
Two days later he saw her again, on the upper walkway, leaning on the railing and watching; he gave her a wave and kept working, and when he looked up after the "Clint Eastwood punches a lot of guys" segment of the DVD, she was gone.
The following week, it was Angela and what he could only assume were her workout partners. He ignored them and kept practicing, except for a rueful look in their direction when he tried a flip-kick, mastered the flip part, failed the kick completely, and fell on his face. The next time he went in for practice, there were five or six people on the walkway, chatting.
Neal shrugged it off; maybe Angela was forming some kind of workout club. He was getting good enough that he didn't mind a little showboating, either.
Angela's workout club became a companion to his morning routine; he'd see them when he was going in, or during the practice, and by the time he was done they had usually dispersed. He'd see one or two of the guys in the locker room, say hi, get dressed and move on with his day. The guys seemed friendly enough. Once in a while one of them would offer to buy breakfast, but Neal declined. It didn't do to get too chummy outside of the team.
Peter didn't usually use the FBI gym; he saw enough of his colleagues at work every day, and Ruiz used to come in when he did and try some macho one-upmanship thing that Peter frankly didn't have time for. He had a gym near his house where he knew everyone, and occasionally he ran a self-defense workshop if there was enough interest in it. People liked learning basic holds and throws from an FBI agent, and this way he always got to impress into them that showing off their self-defense skills and protecting their wallet wasn't worth getting knifed by a mugger.
The intramural league had picked up its game, though, as they got closer to the NYLE tournament. Having missed a practice on Friday due to Agent Corcoran busting a major drug operation, they held a meeting over email and decreed a five-am makeup on Monday. So Peter got up early, kissed a sleeping Elizabeth goodbye, and came in with his basketball and his workout clothes.
There was a crowd on the walkway to the basketball court. Peter frowned a little, pushing through at the back, and glanced over to see what the big deal was.
Of course. Neal.
He knew Neal had been coming in early -- thank you, anklet -- but he figured the guy was just lifting weights. Neal had a lot of energy to burn, and if he was burning it on workouts that made Peter's life easier. It appeared, however, that Neal's workout consisted of shadow boxing and bizarre gymnastics.
"Hey, boss," Diana said, catching up to him as Peter made it through the crowd. "Ready to play?"
"Yeah, I just need to warm up," Peter answered, glancing over his shoulder. "What's with the captive audience?"
Diana laughed. "It's the Neal Caffrey Show."
"People like to watch him work," she said. "I don't get it, but then..." she gestured with one hand. "Caffrey doesn't do it for me."
"Wait, people are watching Neal...do what?" he asked.
"I don't know, but there's a crowd every time he comes in." Diana shrugged. "People take bets on whether he'll take his shirt off."
Beyond them, Neal stopped and pulled his shirt off, wiping his face with it. Money discreetly changed hands.
"This is ridiculous," Peter said. "You! Hey! Shoo, go on," he said, waving his hands as people looked his way. "No ogling the felon. Go, don't you have yoga or something to do?"
The crowd, muttering, began to disperse. Peter came down the steps to the hall, basketball forgotten, and knocked on the glass. Neal looked up and grinned wide, coming over to open the door.
"Hey, Peter," he said, beaming. "Early practice?"
"What the hell are you doing?" Peter asked.
"Workout," Neal said solemnly.
"Is that Clint Eastwood?" Peter pointed to the DVD player.
"He punches people," Neal said, as if that explained it. "Hey, you're the one who told me the FBI wouldn't pay for training. I decided to learn on my own."
"From Clint Eastwood movies," Peter said.
"Not just Clint Eastwood. Want to see something cool?" Neal said, and backed up. Peter watched him execute a backflip, one leg extended. Because it was Neal, the kick was pretty elegant; it was also the most pointless fight move he'd ever seen.
"You're going to get yourself killed," he said, and tossed the basketball to Diana. "Sorry, I'm missing practice," he told her. She just smiled, gave Neal an eyebrow-raise, and walked off.
"This is to prevent me from getting myself killed," Neal said, pausing the DVD.
"You're going to try that on some guy with a gun and get shot," Peter told him.
"I'm doing fine, thanks," Neal retorted.
"You're learning stage fighting. Come at me."
Neal eyed him. "Look, I don't want to say it -- "
"Then don't. Come on, give me your best shot."
Neal surged forward, ready to throw a hook, and Peter socked him in the shoulder and put him on the floor. Neal looked surprised, which was rare and to be appreciated.
"How'd you do that?" he asked, not getting up. "Jesus, I think you dislocated my shoulder."
"Don't be a whiner," Peter told him, hauling him up. "I hit a nerve, that's all."
Neal rotated his shoulder carefully. "But that's Clint Eastwood's best move."
"I could take him," Peter said. "Try again."
Twenty minutes and fifteen falls for Neal later, Neal stayed down and held up his hands.
"I give, you win," he said, letting Peter help him up. "I suck now and forever, are you happy now?"
"Look, if you're going to insist on learning how to fight, someone needs to teach you," Peter told him.
"The chance to kick your ass around the room? Sure," Peter said. "But we're gonna have words about your fan club."
"My fan club?" Neal asked. Peter tipped his head at the walkway outside. A few of the crowd had come back and were watching avidly. "You mean Angela's workout group?"
Peter gave him a sardonic look. Neal gaped.
"They were taking bets on when you'd take your shirt off," Peter said.
"Seriously?" Neal preened a little. "If I'd known I would have placed a few discreet bets and cleaned up."
"You're hopeless," Peter said, heading for the door.
"No, really, you'll teach me?" Neal asked, following him. "Because I had no idea you could do that. Did you learn from some guru on a hillside? Can you climb bamboo?"
"You didn't get into many fights as a kid, did you?" Peter asked.
"Define fights," Neal said. "I got really good at running and hiding."
Peter cast a questioning glance at him. Neal gave him a bland smile and continued. "Why, did you? Were you a juvenile delinquent?" he asked, sounding delighted at the idea.
"I was a weedy kid, I had a smart mouth," Peter said, turning away. "It invites attention."
"You were bullied," Neal said, disbelieving.
"Yeah, you want to make a case out of it?" Peter asked, trying to keep the defensiveness out of his voice.
"Hard to imagine anyone going after you, that's all," Neal replied.
"Well, they did. A lot. Then I hit a growth spurt and started playing football, suddenly the guys who used to come after me were six inches shorter than me. I decided," Peter said, holding the locker room door open, "to start hitting back. About two months of detentions for fighting later, they stopped bugging me."
"Inspirational," Neal drawled. "Hey Gavin," he added, waving at one of the guys a few locker-rows over. Gavin grinned and waved back.
"He's one of your fans," Peter said, grabbing a towel and heading for the shower.
"Yeah, he kept asking me out for breakfast for a while. If I'd known he was propositioning me I'd have said yes," Neal said, following. Peter turned and raised his eyebrow. "What? He's a good looking guy."
"Keep it in your pants at work," Peter told him.
"Funny, coming from the man stripping down," Neal replied. Peter just waggled his left hand, showing off his ring. "You're a riot, Peter."
"Get in the shower, Caffrey, we have work to do."
The next time they saw Peter coming, Neal's groupies scattered; Neal was just stretching, but he had his shirt off, and Peter regretted ever telling him he had fans.
"You're hopeless," he said, coming into the room. Neal sighed. "Okay, to start with, you need to stop thinking you're ever going to have to kick higher than your waist in an actual fight...."
Working with Neal was, actually, pretty fun. It was fun to throw him around, and fun too when Neal mastered a punch or a block and gave Peter a self-satisfied smile. He learned fast; he was still falling down two times in three, but after all Peter had been in dirty scrums since he was a teenager, and Neal was still fighting the whole "run and hide" conditioning. Neal was young and in impeccable condition, too -- he had more stamina, and Peter found himself sweating, trying to teach and keep up and not hit too hard, all at the same time. Pulling punches was more work than going all-out.
He was so focused on the lessons that when they finally stopped and he looked up, he found a whole crowd of people on the walkway, watching them.
"For the love of God," he groaned, and Neal laughed. "It's not funny, this isn't a show."
"Sure it is," Neal said. "Look, even Diana's watching."
Peter looked up again. Diana gave him a wave.
"I don't get what's so fascinating," Peter said. "You're not even doing backflips."
Neal shrugged. "It's a little homoerotic, all this sweaty wrestling."
Peter stared at him. "Should I put my shirt back on?"
"Please don't," Neal said. "I got ten bucks riding on you keeping it off."
"That's not funny."
"No, it's not, I'm betting six-to-one odds."
Diana, who had apparently figured out they were discussing the fan club, leaned in the door. "Nice show."
"Why are you even watching?" Peter asked.
"I got sucked in. You have mad fight skills, boss," she said.
Peter hesitated. "Is that a good thing?"
"How do you function?" Neal asked.
"Keep it up," Diana said. "Caffrey might actually learn something."
"Hey!" Neal said, but Diana was already walking away.
"Okay, enough for today," Peter decided, pulling his shirt back on. "You getting anything useful out of this?"
"I think you punched me in my actual kidney," Neal complained, following him out.
"You're the one who wanted to learn," Peter reminded him.
"It was a lot more fun before someone was fighting me back," Neal said. "I'm beginning to see why you encouraged running away."
"Good," Peter answered seriously. "Running away is good. Fighting is a last resort."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it, way of the Peaceful Tiger," Neal replied.
"We really have to get you some new movies," Peter informed him. "You want to keep this up? Because I'm enjoying myself, but you're going to hate me when you start to feel those punches."
"Believe me, I already do," Neal said. "Sure. Thursday good for you?"
"Thursday's good for me," Peter agreed.
"They gave you a nickname, you know," Neal said, the fifth or sixth time they met for practice. He blocked Peter's punch, grunting.
"Yeah?" Peter asked, driving forward as Neal dodged backwards.
"Yep. Gun Show Burke," Neal said, managing to put Peter on the mat. Peter rolled to his feet.
"You know." Neal flexed his arms, circling him. "Welcome to the Gun Show."
"This is absurd," Peter said. "What do they call you?"
"I need to tell you, I just threw you," Neal answered.
"That's a long nickname," Peter replied, ducking another punch. Neal grimaced.
"Lightweight Caffrey," he admitted. Peter stopped, dropped his arms, and started laughing. "It's not funny!"
"Lightweight Caffrey," Peter grinned.
"You almost never knock me over anymore," Neal pointed out.
"That's because I'm holding back," Peter said.
"The hell you are," Neal challenged.
"I don't want to break you," Peter informed him.
"Aw, come on, step me up, I'm ready."
Peter bent a little and curled both his hands in a come-get-it gesture. Neal attacked; he was getting better, but --
"Ow, mother -- " Neal yelled from the floor. "You punched me in the head."
"You wanted to step it up," Peter pointed out.
"In my head, Peter! Where my brain is! Twice!"
Peter shrugged, covertly rubbing his hand. Neal had a hard skull. "They teach Krav Maga at Quantico. I did a brush-up course last year."
"I thought that was just kickboxing," Neal said, rubbing his head. "I think I'm concussed. Ow."
He didn't get up, and Peter knelt next to him, genuinely concerned; he'd still pulled the punch a little, but he might have --
Neal's arm darted up around his throat, pulling him into a headlock and flipping him across Neal's body. Peter grunted as the breath was knocked out of him.
"You son of a bitch," he wheezed. Neal grinned down at him.
"That's for trying to give me brain damage," he said. "Krav Maga, huh?"
Peter nodded, still struggling to get his wind back. Neal's eyes gleamed.
"Teach me that," he said.
The problem with white-collar criminals, Peter reflected as he sat slumped against a wall, bleeding, was that most of them didn't know how to fight, so they either stabbed people indiscriminately or hired thugs to fight for them or, in this case, both.
It was supposed to be an easy operation. He and Neal were going in as a crooked art dealer (Neal) and his bodyguard (Peter) and Neal was just supposed to make sure the stolen painting was real and get out so that they could file a warrant and take the bad guys down. He'd done a very good job right up until the "getting out" part, when he'd gone to adjust his tie and apparently something had shifted, and his radio had fallen right out of his ear.
Neal's look of comic surprise had been pretty priceless for the split second before the new owner of the painting wigged out.
After that it was a little bit of a blur, but Peter distinctly remembered getting stabbed from behind, and now he and Neal were cuffed to the rung of a ladder built into the warehouse wall.
"Peter, Peter," Neal chanted, low, worried. "Peter, talk to me."
Peter groaned. He could feel blood seeping down his shirt.
"Okay, you're gonna be okay," Neal said urgently. "They must've heard the radio go out, they're on their way. They are, right? They're on their way."
Peter nodded weakly.
"You're bleeding a lot," Neal said, sounding frantic.
"I got stabbed," Peter managed. He sounded indignant, even to himself.
"They're going to shoot us," Neal said. "They had guns, I saw the guns."
Peter heard a rustling, and then a clank; he was pretty sure Neal had picked the handcuffs, but his vision was going black around the edges.
"You stay here," Neal said.
"Neal, just -- go," Peter urged. At least one of them could get out and make sure backup was coming.
"Yeah, that's not so much happening," Neal answered. "Peaceful Tiger, Peter."
Peter muttered a curse that he didn't think really made it past his lips. He saw the guys who'd chained them coming back into the room; he saw Neal dart around a set of boxes and then come out behind the thugs when they were already past him.
He'd taught Neal that punch, and that kick, and -- okay, he hadn't taught him that; thank you Jackie Chan -- but he definitely remembered using that armhold on Neal once. Neal, it appeared, had been holding back on Peter, too. There was a sharp snapping noise and one of the thugs howled in pain; Neal rolled off him, gun in hand (oh shit Neal, no) and elbowed the other guy in the stomach, bringing the pistol down across his face.
That was pure movie fighting, and Neal seemed to realize his mistake when the guy just shook the pistol-whipping off and slugged Neal in the stomach. Neal doubled over, toppled to the ground, and then rammed his heel into the side of the other man's ankle. There was another snapping noise. Neal bounded up, yanked the gun out of the guy's hand, threw him to the floor and kicked him in the head. Then he stood there, panting.
Which was when Diana and Jones burst into the room, guns up. Peter saw Neal startle and for a second he thought Neal was going to go for them, too. Instead, slowly, he raised his arms. There was a gun in each hand. "Don't shoot, it's me, don't shoot."
"Holy..." Jones stared at the two guys on the ground. Neal set the guns down carefully. Even with his vision going, Peter could see his shoulders heaving.
He tried to get up, because Jones and Diana were there, and pain rippled up his ribcage; he grunted, and Neal turned, panic in his face.
"Man down," he called, running back to Peter. There was a crackle of a radio, somewhere. Everything was very vague. Peter could see about half of Neal's face, in front of him.
"Easy," Neal said. "Easy, Gun Show, EMTs are coming."
"Hey, Lightweight," Peter mumbled. "Nice fighting."
"Yeah, you saw that? Peter, no, come on, don't lights-out on me," Neal said, and Peter felt his chin tipped up. There was a sudden sharp movement, everything went cold, and Peter passed out.
When he woke again, he was in the hospital; he'd know a hospital ceiling anywhere.
It hurt to breathe, but Peter was pretty sure if he was conscious and it was this quiet, he was still alive and probably not in danger. He slowly, carefully turned his head; the pair of thugs from the warehouse were in beds next to his, firmly cuffed and shackled to them.
"You motherfuckers," Peter croaked, weakly raising his hand, "are under arrest."
There was a quiet laugh nearby; Peter turned his head in the other direction and found Elizabeth sitting in a chair next to the bed. She put one hand on his chest, smiling.
"They know, sweetie," she said, cupping his face with her other hand. "Welcome back."
"They are under so much arrest," Peter told her.
"Yes, they are," she agreed. Peter had the feeling he was being humored.
"Hey," someone else said, and Neal appeared over Elizabeth's shoulder. Two of him, actually. Peter blanched, and slowly he came back into focus. Just one Neal. Oh thank God. "How ya feeling?"
Peter narrowed his eyes at him. "High," he said finally.
"Good guess." Elizabeth patted his head. "Go back to sleep."
"You," Peter said, pointing at Neal. "Make sure they don't go anywhere."
"Yeah, I promise," Neal said.
"Okay then," Peter replied, feeling unaccountably cranky, and closed his eyes again.
The doctor -- the very polite, very young doctor -- said that the wound wasn't that serious. Peter thought this lacked perspective; it felt pretty serious to the guy with the wound, i.e., him. But apparently the blood loss was the worst part, and if he didn't do anything strenuous or pull his stitches, he'd be back at the FBI in a few weeks, tops.
The thugs Neal had gone after weren't so lucky. One of them had two broken arms and a couple of cracked ribs. The other one had a broken ankle and a fractured skull. ("I only fractured it a little," Neal said, holding up thumb and forefinger.)
Once Peter was home, laid out in the living room recliner and dosed with slightly less powerful drugs, Neal decided it was his job to entertain him.
"So it was all, pow," Neal said, demonstrating the kidney punch he'd used on the first guy. "And then I got his arms up and went -- " he jerked his head back, demonstrating how he'd snapped both arms at once. "And then the other guy -- "
"I know," Peter said, waving a hand vaguely. "I was there. I'm very impressed. If you ever try that again I'll kill you."
Neal frowned. "They were going to shoot us."
"Yeah, and then you punched them, and they would have shot you," Peter pointed out.
"Nah, I know kung fu," Neal deadpanned.
"Don't think I didn't see that show-off pistol-whip," Peter warned him.
"Okay, I made one mistake," Neal said. "But you know I hate guns."
Peter sighed, which hurt. "Yeah, I know. When I'm back on my feet we're going to go over stuff you don't do to show off."
"Nuh-uh," Neal shook his head, sitting down on the coffee table. "Hughes heard about what happened. Diana said you've been teaching me how to fight and he said that could be construed as prisoner abuse."
"What?" Peter asked, trying to sit up. His side burned, and he grunted.
"It's fine, they handled it." Neal said, pushing him back down. "Hughes just said you can't instruct me anymore until I have formal training."
"So, while you're off sick," Neal said, and a sudden grin split his face, "Hughes is sending me to Quantico."
Peter gave him a horrified look. "No."
"Yup. Jones is going with me, it's fine," Neal told him. "They'll reconfigure my radius so I can't leave the grounds. He's gonna do some guest lectures on white-collar crime. I'm taking the Krav Maga course."
"Noooo," Peter groaned.
"I promise, Peter, I will not corrupt any young impressionable minds," Neal said. "Much."
"I'm coming with you," Peter said, trying to get up again. Neal kept a hand on his chest, pinning him gently.
"No, you're going to stay here and bother Elizabeth and not pop your stitches," Neal said firmly. "It'll be fine, Peter. I promise I'll be good. Now, I have to go pack," he added, standing up. "See you in a couple of weeks. Behave!" he added, and breezed out. Peter stared after him.
"He's going to destroy Quantico," he told Elizabeth, when she came into the living room.
"Probably," she said, offering him a glass of juice. "Should be fun. Jones promised me daily emails."
Peter sipped his juice, frowning. "I don't like him going so far from New York."
"It's okay," Elizabeth answered. She stroked his hair. "Neal can take care of himself. I hear he totally took out two guys who were going to shoot my husband."
Peter groaned and covered his face with one hand.
"Drink your juice and try to breathe, and if you're good I'll put the game on," she told him, and went back to her work.